Walsh: An ever-deeper, and cleverer, hole

From an Antique Land

Why, it feels like it was just yesterday! And yet here we are upon the one-year anniversary of the BP oil spill, a wonderful milestone, a time to pause, celebrate, memorialize, reflect: the massive fireball and thick black smoke streaming like a ship mast high above the Gulf, the scintillating white water arcing from rescue boats into the tireless flames, and, mirrored 5,000 feet below the surface, another black plume streaming from the capless Macondo Prospect. Who could forget that captivating image of oil blasting out from an open pipe end; the robots, knocking around, probing with their clumsy arms in the doubly thick darkness.

Here we are, one year later, shocked from afar as reactor four of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant blows open and tall flames spew radioactive smoke into the atmosphere. As we watch partial nuclear meltdown, the severity of the accident is reassessed and ratcheted from a five to a seven; Chernobyl was a seven. News stories of incrementally rising levels of radiation in the seawater roll in daily. A Japanese fishing industry and culture stares down its bleak economic future. Refugees in their own country huddle in damp tents with little food or medicine. The infrastructure needed to transport supplies is badly damaged.

Happy anniversary.

We owe it to ourselves, at the very least, to take a moment and grapple with a comment made in Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha.” In an empty grove, the Buddha sits and kindly listens to Siddhartha’s rational objection to Buddhism. He then offers a punchy reply: “You are clever, O [Siddhartha]. You know how to talk cleverly, my friend. Be wary of too much cleverness!”

Joseph Tainter echoes this ancient conversation in his contemporary theory about the diminishing returns of complexity: Societies tend to resolve difficult problems — and Tainter speaks specifically about energy problems — with complex solutions.

Humans are clever, no doubt about that. Devising a system to recover oil under earth that itself is under one mile of open water requires immense cleverness. Capturing atomic power in a fission reactor requires even immenser cleverness, a godlike insight recognized by Oppenheimer when he witnessed the first atomic detonation by mankind: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” Hyperbolic, certainly, but not far from the truth — the harnessing of such a primeval force, a celestial force.

But when these clever solutions spin off problems of their own, even more complex solutions arise in treatment. Through this process we’ve built a house of cards, we’ve generated a host of super wicked problems.

“Super wicked” is the technical term. It requires no further explanation. What should be troubling to anyone who pauses to think about it is how effectively we’ve designed and engineered our way into a hole of unknown depth.

We don’t know what we’re doing. Can’t we at least not know what we’re doing a little more carefully?

The formerly titled Minerals Management Service (MMS), which received unflattering press for the transgression of its Denver office employees — who frequently had sex and shared cocaine with oil executives — was the agency in charge of monitoring regulatory compliance of offshore drilling activities. The MMS was recently renamed the more potent, though less alliterative, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. The agency remains staffed by many of the same people as it was on April 20, 2010. And with few new regulatory provisions in place, deepwater drilling continues today as if nothing happened. A new director has taken charge of the bureau and appears to be working toward a more refined and effective regulatory process, but he’s yet to hit the mark. According to a recent New York Times article, it “will be years before [the agency] can establish a robust regulatory regime able to minimize the risks to workers and the environment while still allowing exploration offshore.”

And by the time the agency is ready with these complex new rules and its robust regulatory regime, the oil industry will have advanced even further with even more complex technologies for the recovery of more inaccessible reserves. So as the house of cards grows taller, the more it will sway.

Dylan Walsh is a second-year student in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.